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Thursday, 13 October 2011

What a Mess!

Today the British news media carry another plethora of items that contribute to a general feeling of gloom  at the apparently-universal collapse of social norms across the economically distressed country.
Most shocking is a report of spot checks on geriatric wards in 100 hospitals, that shows half the hospitals provided inadequate care: and one in five were so neglectful that they did not meet basic standards - they were breaking the law.
Almost a million young people are not in employment or education; and women's unemployment is headed for a new all-time record.
House and flat rents in almost half of the urban areas surveyed by Shelter were 'unaffordable' to the people with the lowest incomes.
The government insists that there is no alternative to their policy of reduced expenditure: thence the lack of funding from central government is the excuse of local authorities and health trusts for their inability to provide new homes, clean hospital wards, caring nurses or edible food..
These phenomena are not the direct product of George Osborne's cuts: they are the result of cumulative policy failures over two whole generations. The Care Quality Commission [which issued the data about bad hospitals] is emphatic that the core of the problem is NOT a lack of funding: they ascribe the failings to hospital managers and nurses, especially supervising nurses, who simply fail to show care, concern or commitment to their patients. Arrogant management placed mechanistic targeting, box ticking and bean-counting at the centre of their concerns. An absurd theoretical picture of nursing has 'elevated' it to a 'graduate profession' that has completely lost the patient-centred concentration in which the matron and the ward sister inducted trainees in the 'bad old days'.
Never before was so much money spent on housing as in the years between 1980 and 2005: but the overwhelming majority of that money was churned through the system known as banking into a constant increase in the prices of used houses. Most new homes that were built in those years were in the private sector, and as soon as they were occupied they were viewed by their owners as assets whose rising 'value' provided security for borrowing that enabled them to enjoy a lifestyle that exceeded the purchasing-power of their wages. Private sector housing that has been bought by landlords for letting only pays for itself if rents cover the landlord's costs, including the costs of borrowing the high prices of the properties. Meanwhile, the supply of 'affordable' homes has fallen far below the demand of low-income families and the growing number of single-household people who cannot afford private rents.
These problems, with their long gestation periods, are intractable in the economic conditions that exist, given the coalition government's budgetary policy. Even if the government reversed its policy and decided to fund the building of millions of modest homes for rent they would run up against planning restrictions and capacity constraints in the building trades.
Only a few tens of thousands of the unemployed have building skills, so more tens of thousands would need to be trained: and the facilities for that training would require massive expansion. Then there would be a huge problem in trying to recruit trainees. It would be cheaper and less divisive socially in the short term to recruit builders from the eastern states of the European Union.
No quick fix can meet Britain's need in housing, healthcare, unemployment or any of the other major problems   that are all-too-well known. Simply to reverse the 'cuts' policy will not deal with any of the great issues. The overriding need is for a fundamental change in the national political economy, based on the construction of a new picture of the practical possibilities that are open to the nation. A political consensus must adopt the most rational alternatives, without the tedium of party-political banter associated with the idiocy of always having some of the most able parliamentarians in opposition.
But the House of Commons proved only yesterday that such a vision is pie-in-the-sky. Things will have to get very much worse yet before the blinkered ego-trippers begin to see sense.

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